Photos by Frank Curran
The realization hit Abdi Nor Iftin just after he’d disembarked from the Green Line train and began walking up the hill toward the Boston College campus, preparing to attend his first class at the Woods College of Advancing Studies.
“This is it,” he remembers thinking. “I’m here. I made it.”
Except that this internal monologue took place in his native Somali language, Iftin points out.
“I don’t dream or think in English,” he says. “Not yet.”
That evening last fall, Iftin joined the generations-long procession of men and women who have come to BC, from Boston or thousands of miles away, to cultivate their intellectual and spiritual selves, looking inward while simultaneously reaching out to the world.
Every BC student has his or her unique story, of course, but Iftin’s is a particularly compelling one—and widely shared, thanks to his improbable stint as a foreign correspondent and his 2018 memoir, Call Me American.
Born and raised in war-torn Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, Iftin endured a dangerously violent and traumatic childhood that eventually saw him flee to Kenya, where—still facing danger—he won a lottery enabling him to apply for a green card to the U.S. Barely escaping Kenya’s crackdown on Somalians and struggling with government bureaucracy, Iftin was able to make his way to the U.S. and settle in Maine. In the past few years, through media interviews and speaking engagements as well as Call Me American, he has emerged as a voice for refugees and all who seek a new and better life; his website, callmeamerican.com, provides updates about his activities as well as details of his already eventful life story.
““Being able to go to a Jesuit school, one with a history of serving immigrants, is what I was made for. I am really so grateful BC has that opportunity for people like me . . . I feel I belong here. I am not a stranger. ”
But Iftin feels his story is in many ways just beginning—he just became a naturalized U.S. citizen—and that its direction will be shaped by his experience at Boston College. It’s already made a difference, he says.
“Being able to go to a Jesuit school, one with a history of serving immigrants, is what I was made for,” says Iftin, who is majoring in political science as a part-time Woods College student. “I am really so grateful BC has that opportunity for people like me: someone who is 34 and never went to [a traditional] high school. I feel I belong here. I am not a stranger.”
Iftin has been only able to attend one class at Woods; he works as a professional interpreter for district courts and hospitals, not only to support himself but to provide for his family back in Somalia. Yet that class, Modern History I and II, has been a revelation for him—and perhaps for his classmates as well.
“I’m the one who asks all the weird questions,” he quips. “The thing is, most of the other students in class are at least familiar with what is being taught, whether it’s Karl Marx and his writing, or World War II, or the French Thirty Years War. As a Somali and a Muslim, I never heard this part of history, and so it’s a privilege now to learn it. I feel as if I’m on board, and it’s very thrilling to think: ‘I got this.’”
“Abdi is a very committed, interested, and engaged student,” says Martin Menke Ph.D. ’96, an adjunct faculty member who teaches Modern History. “He’s able to draw fascinating parallels and comparisons between the class content and his own experiences. When you have someone like Abdi, who’s endured things most of us cannot imagine, the insights he has are incredibly valuable. He helps others realize the value of what we are learning and discussing.
“And this is one of the joys of teaching at Woods College,” adds Menke, who’s been affiliated with the school for more than 20 years. “You have so many students who appreciate learning through sacrifice.”
Iftin heard about BC not long after he had settled in Maine and began attending a college there, through a friend who is an alumnus of the University. The more he heard, the more intrigued he was—BC seemed to be a place “where I would thrive.” He eventually moved to the Greater Boston area and visited the campus frequently just to walk around and get a feel for the place. Finally, he enrolled in Woods and was able to transfer his credits, putting him on target for a 2021 graduation.
For Iftin, moving to Boston and transferring to BC proved to be equally illuminating for his expanding world view, not to mention his emotional and spiritual wellbeing. He will always cherish his years in Maine, explains Iftin, who learned English as a child by watching action films, but he also was keenly self-conscious of attracting scrutiny just by walking down the street or speaking his native tongue. These are not minor concerns, he says: As a diagnosed PTSD sufferer—he recounts Al-Shabaab militants pointing an AK-47 in his face, and forcing him to watch them kill civilians, all as a child—feelings of insecurity can be debilitating and lead to panic attacks.
“In Boston, though, I feel I can speak and move freely—if someone threatens me, I can call 911, and that person will be arrested,” he says. “People don’t pay attention to what language you’re speaking. It’s so different than what I knew in Somalia, which is homogenous in its language and faith. The U.S. I see in Boston is a small world. I’d never met anyone from Mexico or Brazil, for example, until I came here, and I’ve also now met people from other parts of Africa—we all play soccer together.”
“ America inspired me as a young boy. I love and respect America and I believe in its ideals. I want America to understand that there are many people, in Somalia and other parts of the world, who like me simply want to make a good life for themselves—not by lying around doing nothing, but working and contributing to the community.”
For Iftin, storytelling has been more a calling than a form of recreation or leisure: As a refugee in Kenya, he recorded audio diaries that were broadcast by BBC and NPR. “I wanted to tell the human side of the story, of ordinary people, not the warlords or fighters. Those were the stories the world needed to hear.”
Bringing that story to life in Call Me American was a burdensome task—it meant having to revisit many traumatic events from his earlier life—but one he felt compelled to perform.
“Storytelling is a great power, because it can make things happen,” he says. “America inspired me as a young boy. I love and respect America and I believe in its ideals. I want America to understand that there are many people, in Somalia and other parts of the world, who like me simply want to make a good life for themselves—not by lying around doing nothing, but working and contributing to the community.”
Where will Iftin’s story take him next, after he finishes his degree at BC? Someday, he believes, it will send him home.
“I want to go back to Somalia and apply what I’ve learned. Ninety-nine percent of refugees don’t make it here, so I am needed to help reconstruct our country and society. That is the best thing I can do.”
Sean Smith | University Communications | February 2020